He Was a Flower
Climbing up onto the bed, Fatima rummages through a large trunk in the corner of the room, pulling out plastic bags full of books from beneath Hekmatullah’s now redundant computer. Surrounded by her seven remaining children, Fatima eases herself back down on to the floor. Sitting cross-legged in a delicate blue dress that covers her heavily pregnant bump, she begins to slowly unpack the belongings of her recently deceased eldest son. Sixty-five days after Hekmatullah died while on the journey with smugglers in Greece, she summons up the courage to look back through his short life.
Carefully untying each bag, Fatima begins to weep, taking heavy breaths in an attempt to suffocate her sadness. An A grade student, Hekmatullah’s small, neat handwriting in English, Pashto and Urdu fills the piles of exercise books. As sounds of a wedding celebration filter through the mud walls from the sewage-filled lanes of the refugee camp outside, Fatima fingers the pages slowly with her hands, tracing the outline of words she cannot read. Between the books, certificates in computing, English and graphic design chart the path of a studious boy. From inside pages of penned poems, Fatima holds a photograph up to her eye level. On a sunny day, Hekmatullah poses in front on a newly constructed apartment block in Greece with his childhood friend Bilal and a newfound companion. The group of boys squint, smiling into the camera. Sharing the image with her youngest son Rizwan, the three year old kisses the picture; pointing to the brother he calls Gulalai. Fatima nods, “He was a flower. Since the day he was born, I called him my beautiful flower”.
Escaping from the Russian invasion among an exodus of millions, Hekmatullah’s family fled from Afghanistan more than thirty years ago, leaving behind everything they had. Crossing into Pakistan from easterly Nangahar province, they moved between the refugee camps along the border, eventually settling down on the edge of the sprawling Kababian slum in Peshawar.
Having never had the opportunity to study himself due to war, Hekmatullah’s softly spoken father Shafiullah now works as selling vegetables from a handcart on the city’s streets. Across from his wife in the mud built living room, he looks into her tearful eyes momentarily, separated by the pile of books and papers that now cover the floor. “I wanted to give my eldest son what I never had. He wanted to be a civil engineer and every spare Rupee was spent on his education. Nobody in our family has ever been so determined like him. From when he was very young he showed great promise and was in love with his study. Every morning he would start his day with nimaz (prayer), then go to school, on to the English language centre and straight home again; his was a calculated life. He grew up as a refugee but wanted to break free and be successful”.
“I told him a year or so ago that he should go to Afghanistan and find work as a translator with NATO but then people told me it was far too dangerous. He never spoke about leaving for Europe. In the end, everything was all very sudden. Hekmatullah and his closest friend Bilal had this plan in the morning and then started their journey by the evening. They were only sixteen and seventeen”.
“When he broke the news to me that he was travelling to Europe I couldn’t agree but he talked to me calmly and explained that he was going for a better life so that he could support the family. He told me that you father are the only one of us earning and should let me go for your own sake. Hekmatullah explained that he hadn’t paid anything but when he reached to France or Belgium he would find a way. Whatever his pleas, until the very last moment I just couldn’t concede. In the back of mind I kept thinking how clever he was and that he must be choosing the right path. I loved him so much that in the end I decided I shouldn’t stand in the way of his future”.
“When he left home, the whole family was gathered. He was kissing us all and was really crying. He told us that he wasn’t afraid of the hardships that lay ahead of him and said no matter what he faced, he would be thinking of us all the time. For the next thirty-five days he called us whenever he had the opportunity. He spoke to me about all the difficulties on the way; crossing jungles, rivers and mountains. He was arrested twice in Turkey and had to spend time in gaol. I think he even felt embarrassed at his own situation but said that he had no other choice but to continue on the path he had chosen”.
“In Greece he started work as a labourer but was not being paid by his employer. He said he had become stuck there and in all spent about seven months near Athens. Without any wages he had no money and because of the bad weather, it was too hard for him to even continue his journey. He was complaining that there wasn’t anywhere decent to stay and in the end I ended up sending him one and a half Lak Afghanis (€2,300) just to help him survive. Eventually Bilal received €5,300 from his family to cover the fee the agent was asking and somehow he convinced them to take Hekmatullah along with him. They set out for Italy”.
“At one thirty in the morning on the night they were leaving, Bilal’s father Gulbuddin received a call from Greece. Bilal told him that Hekmatullah’s dead body is lying in my lap. He said that they were travelling with the agent in the mountains and because they were driving so fast there was an accident. They were lucky that their vehicle had not fallen down the rocks and into the sea. Bilal was in a terrible state with a head injury. His ribs and legs were broken and he was badly in need of medical treatment. Out of the forty-eight on board the small bus, he told his father that fifteen had died”.
“Bilal was taken by ambulance and spent three days in hospital. As much as his family tried to persuade him to come home, he refused because he said that he had gone through too much. I was put in touch with the Afghan community in Athens who were very kind. They took Hekmatullah’s body to a Bangladeshi mosque and collected some money even though they are very poor themselves. I had to take a loan and with what we managed to raise, they sent the body to Istanbul and then on to Kabul. Hekmatullah was received at the airport and taken for burial at our ancestral village. You could say it was the third time that he was ever in Afghanistan”.
Wearing a pakal that compliments his closely trimmed greying beard, Shafiullah looks austere but behind his façade he is a shattered man. Retreating to the almost black corner of the dark room during a power outage, his eyes well with tears. The children sit in a circle in absolute silence.
“When the people get helpless and have economic problems, it pushes them to go off in search of work or education abroad so that they can at least have a decent life. When they turn to the smugglers they are never told about the problems they will encounter on the way. I’m sure if they knew the real facts, they would never have set out on this journey. I feel so angry towards the agents. They are nothing but criminals who have spread lies throughout the whole Afghan community. Any boy who wants to go to Europe and follow in the footsteps of Hekmatullah will find nothing better at the end of the road. Nobody should take this step”.
“I was scared when he left but this kind of incident happening never crossed my mind. All I can do to ease my conscience is to think of Hekmatullah’s passing as God’s will. I’m trying hard to be strong but the whole family are still in shock. His death has had such a strong impact, not only on my wife but all the children. In this house, we are sick from sadness”.
Still sifting through the piles of papers, Fatima locates a hidden photograph of Hekmatullah. Taken at the mosque in Athens, he lies dead in a coffin. Shrouded in a green hospital sheet, a smear of dried blood on his face is partially covered with a piece of sticky tape wrapped around his forehead that bears his name. “It was such a hard time when we found out Hekmatullah had been killed; like the most frightening dream you can imagine. It was as if a great distance has opened up between the earth and the sky that I could not longer even reach out to God. My whole life stopped. I can’t forget my son and feel that I can’t go on living without him. I am a mother; you can only imagine my pain”.
Clutching the gruesome picture to her heart, Fatima cries out, “Gulalai! Gulalai!” Slowly returning it carefully to the place in the note pad that is its hiding place, Hekmatullah’s picture rests among some of his own last handwritten thoughts. Transcribed as Charbetas (Pashtun stanzas), many of the short poems in the book speak of a teenager lost in romantic thoughts. Others eerily speak of a young life lost, now echoed in Fatima’s tears as she packs Hekmatullah’s possessions away back into the trunk.
I am crying in loneliness
I wish you would come to me!
I died alone with no one next to me
And now because of my death, you also cry alone
©Alixandra Fazzina | NOOR
Peshawar, Pakistan, April 2012
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You’re currently reading “He Was a Flower,” an entry on The Flowers of Afghanistan
- April 12, 2012 / 9:23 pm